The current boundary of Greater London as an administrative area was set by the London Government Act of 1963, which also saw the creation of the 32 London boroughs. In the 60 years since then, Greater London’s population and economy have grown enormously and so has the relationship between it and its surrounding areas.
For ten years at least, more people who live in a wide doughnut of territory round the outside of the Greater London border have travelled to work inside it than have been employed within their Home Counties home areas. Greater London’s economic area and travel-to-work areas have long been larger than Greater London itself.
Would it therefore be logical and beneficial all around to formally enlarge Greater London so that it takes in more of the territory surrounding it, reflecting the huge economic, geographical and indeed cultural and demographic changes in the wider south east of England since the far off 1960s?
That was the central issue explored yesterday evening at a joint On London and London Society event held before an audience of well over 100 people at Convene in Bishopsgate by panelists Jack Brown of King’s College, Andrew Boff AM, architect Russell Curtis and property expert Liz Peace.
Speaking first, Jack Brown gave an overview of previous enlargements of London’s statutory boundary, including the one that gave rise, from 1965, to the Greater London Council, which succeeded the previous London County Council. He showed a map of the one-third larger area initially considered for inclusion within Greater London and stressed the vehemence of the largely successful resistance to this: “Epsom lobbied the government furiously. They didn’t want to be part of an urban, built-up, probably more Labour-voting conurbation”. He anticipated similar opposition to any future attempt to incorporate such areas.
There are arguments about fairness that might be used both for and against extending Greater London’s reach. Is it fair that commuters from Shenley and Maidenhead get to use the Elizabeth line when, unlike Londoners, they didn’t stump up taxes to help pay for it? Is it fair that non-Londoners who commute into London driving motor vehicles that are not ULEZ-compliant cannot apply for a share of Sadiq Khan’s scrappage fund? A case can be made that such situations would cease to be anomalous if Greater London’s embrace was wider.
Jack was “not entirely convinced” that big “shared challenges” with housing and transport would be more effectively addressed, but was receptive to the view that bringing some Conservative-leaning territories into the fold might be good for democracy in a Greater London where Labour has become increasingly dominant of late.
Andrew Boff, though an advocate of enlargement who made his case in a 2015 paper called Southern Powerhouse, acknowledged the complexity and potential divisiveness of local and regional government reorganisation. “How do we persuade people to want to change the nature of their government?’ he asked.
For him a key to winning the argument for a larger strategic regional body for London is rejuvenating local government. ‘We need a new deal that entrusts local authorities with real control over their areas,” he said. Such devolution and reform “as part of a settlement to increase the size of London” would produce progress in that direction in places such as Borehamwood, he argued.
On the core issue of housing, Andrew said he had “never met a NIMBY. I’ve never met anyone who said no development, at any time, at all”. He was certain that people want more homes built and, given genuine involvement in decisions about what types, would support it. For him, this was a better solution to increasing supply than a Mayor imposing his or her will from City Hall. He applauded two pieces of post-war legislation as big successes: one, the demarcation of the Green Belt at that time, two, the building of New Towns. The latter cannot be delivered, in his view, “without a bigger and more inclusive London”.
The Green Belt was the main focus of Russell Curtis, whose The Golf Belt project famously highlighted just how much of the Green Belt is given over to the sport rather than being open spaces everyone can use. “Any discussion about the expansion of London has to involve the Green Belt,” he said, “I am an advocate of taking a sensible, pragmatic look at Green Belt policy.”
He pointed out that it stretches “all the way from Godalming out to the North Sea”, yet only seven per cent of it lies within Greater London, and London has “no control over it”. For Russell, this has produced “a parasitical relationship” with towns and regions around London enjoying “all the benefits of being within London’s economic orbit, but doing very little to contribute to its growth”. Epping Forest, Brentwood and Sevenoaks were singled out.
His suggestion? “Why don’t we expand London to the size of its Green Belt?” Under this plan, there would be many more boroughs and “a network of new garden towns and cities”. A Greater London boundary pegged to the Green Belt would take in getting on for 20 million people, but would not mean getting rid of the belt itself: “It just means we are building in locations that are sustainable, close to transport, around rural stations in areas with access to road networks”.
The final panellist to speak, Liz Peace, said that as a former civil servant of long experience, she always tries to look at both sides of any argument. She could see potential advantages from making Greater London bigger – “the two biggest are definitely housing and transport” – but as a pragmatist she felt the downsides outweighed them.
“Are we really saying the GLA works so effectively as it is?” she inquired, and cited her endeavours with the Homes for Londoners board as an example of how difficult it can be to get the 32 boroughs and the GLA, even as it is, to work together co-operatively. City Hall’s difficult relationship with national government – albeit hardly helped by recent political tensions – would not be improved, Liz thought – “You make the GLA bigger, you just make the problem bigger” – and neither would the rather tense one with the north of England (a concern Jack Brown also raised). Her third objection was very simple: “It’s just never going to happen.”
Far better, she maintained, to try to make the current arrangements between London and its surrounding areas, previously codified as a duty to co-operate, function better. “I think the question we’re being asked tonight is the wrong one. We should be debating how we actually get the wider south-east to work coherently with London”. The right combination of carrots and sticks would be required.
Following the panellists’ opening statements, an excellent debate took place, stimulated by questions from audience members Nicky Gavron, Tony Travers, Ian Gordon and others. The whole event can be watched on the video embedded above and here.
Photograph of panellists above, left to right: Russell Curtis, Andrew Boff, Jack Brown and Liz Peace.